Choose artist...

Top 10 for Feb

On 'New York Pretending to Be Paris,' Eric Schorr transforms poems into dramatic and compelling scenes / Fanfare

Bookmark and Share

New York Pretending to Be Paris is a new album featuring contemporary poetry transformed into captivating art songs by New York City-based composer Eric Schorr.  Mezzo-Soprano Eve Gigliotti (Metropolitan Opera), tenor Jesse Darden (Boston Lyric Opera) and baritone Michael Kelly (Théâtre du Châtelet) give voice to thirteen musical settings of poems that are full of longing, desire and poignancy.

The songs are filled with images of great beauty, flashes of humor, and deeply moving characters and stories — of love offered only to be withdrawn; of mothers angry, happy, melancholy, brave and vengeful; of gay men searching for intimacy and a sense of belonging, sometimes successfully, sometimes not; of a small-town psychic, whose death has made an indelible imprint on her clients and leaves them wondering who, if anyone, might replace her as their guide to destiny. The songs flow from one to the next — listening to them is like reading a novel, or a set of interwoven short stories.

Schorr, a lover of poetry, sought out work that resonated with him emotionally and musically – words that when first read (in The New Yorker and various poetry collections), made him hear music, prompted by the rhythm of the language, the vividness of the imagery, and the intimacy, and intensity, of the subject matter. 

The diversity of the poems’ styles and subject matter is reflected in the album’s varied musical vocabulary.  Always tonal, the music veers from Neo-Romantic to jazz to chanson to bossa nova and is exquisitely played by a chamber-sized acoustic orchestra.

Fanfare's Jacqueline Kharouf writes…..Composer Eric Schorr states his artistic aim for this series of art songs as being a kind of balancing act Eric Schorr between two mediums: contemporary poetry and music. Both Erika Switzer modes of expression rely on similar principles—rhythm, baritone cadence, tempo, articulation—but by merging poetry with mezzo-soprano music, Schorr gives these pieces another dimension of piano emotion, meaning, and nuance. In simplest terms, I suppose tenor these are “art songs,” but I’m a little unsure how to distinguish art songs from any other sung performance (isn’t opera also comprised of art songs?). The literary connection here—and Schorr’s deep appreciation for the written poems and the poets who wrote them—is an important distinction, however. And the music of the language that Schorr emphasizes in his compositions—and the kind of tones and inflection expressed by the performers—also distinguishes this kind of work from other types of art songs (such as musical theater, perhaps, which is already well within Schorr’s wheelhouse).

But this music is not merely poems set to music, either. As I listened to each song, I quickly realized that the subject matter of these pieces is far more modern and contemporary. These songs/poems/art songs are orations on modern life, love, and familial relationships—ultimately, expressions about the communion between people—and because they are sung, I’d argue that Schorr has further humanized the original poetry.

It is a very different experience to read the poems (probably in your head, as I did to write this review, but also aloud as poetry should be read), and to hear the pieces performed and set to music. Happily, you do not need to read along with the printed text of the poems in order to understand the performances or to hear the high emotions, drama, and context of each poem. In the piece, Morning (After) Commute, based on the poem by Thomas March, tenor Jesse Darden lends a hopeful, wistful tone to the lyrics, expressing a kind of romantic optimism that isn’t immediately obvious in the text of the poem. Lines like “Such mornings tend to leave one blue / and grimy with regret,” seem to express the dread of starting a new day after such a rendezvous, but the overall lightness and buoyancy of the music leans toward the hopefulness of meeting someone new.

Schorr also utilizes music to set the scene or create the atmosphere of a poem, as he does for the introduction to the piece Marina, based on the poem by Cynthia Zarin. Even before mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti begins to sing, we hear the slow, brooding tones that Zarin expresses in the first line of her poem: “The sky’s gray mantle over me.” In her performance, Gigliotti expresses the speaker’s feelings of brooding and regret in round, golden tones that lean both toward the lowest notes of her range and the highest (as heard on the word “gauze” in the last line of the poem). This dramatic shift in range is perhaps a kind of imitation of the speaker’s volatile feelings toward her now indifferent lover. Gigliotti’s voice melts into the end of the unfinished last line of the poem (repeated twice in the performance): “I am gauze printed by twilight, barely a body—.”

My favorite piece on the album—both for the performance and how Schorr sets the poem to music—is Remodeling, based on the poem by Susan Kinsolving and performed by baritone Michael Kelly. Schorr’s music both gives the lyrics dramatic support and grounds the voice of the speaker as an adult looking back on a child’s understanding of a fight between his parents. The poem is at times quite violent—the mother takes a sledgehammer and crowbar to a wall divider in the home, and later uses a pickaxe on the father’s car—but the music and Kelly’s performance maintain almost an ethereal loftiness, a separation of time and understanding, perhaps.

Like the poem, Schorr shifts the tone of his music on a phrase: “But no one spoke a word.” As the poem’s speaker falls into “a trance / and a truce, in slow motion” in the aftermath of the mother’s sudden “remodeling,” the music slows down, becoming less dramatic and more whimsical. In each of these pieces, Schorr weaves a kind of spell, transforming the worlds of these poems into dramatic and compelling scenes that feel real and human and vulnerable. I hope he will continue to add to his eclectic collection of modern poetry and set more pieces to music.